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Who took the herd out of the German Shepherd?

My Pet Magazine, Madison, Wisconsin 2008
By Michele Kraft

From Rin Tin Tin to the real-life local police dog, the German Shepherd has been an enormously popular breed in the U.S.A. Though sometimes viewed as a naturally aggressive “guard dog” breed, this prejudice has not always been in place. Helen Keller had a German Shepherd, and indeed, these intelligent and versatile dogs had been the number one choice for family pet and guide dogs for years. No one thinks of them as a herding breed anymore though, even though that’s part of their name. That’s because they were originally bred to be versatile. The first multitaskers, and they had four legs!

In 1899, Captain Max von Stephanitz founded the breed, with the goal of producing a top quality sheep dog from working farm dogs in Germany. Shortly thereafter, Stephanitz realized that for the breed to survive, it had to be adaptable to many kinds of work, not just herding. The qualities that made it a superior sheep herder- intelligence, loyalty, self-confidence and trainability- are necessary to all working dogs. Stephanitz believed the breed would be greatly enriched by emphasizing these traits rather than simply selecting for herding instincts.

During World War I, the German Shepherd rose to prominence. Trained to perform a variety of jobs in the German Military, such as messenger, rescuer, sentry, and guard, many U.S. soldiers witnessed impressive feats of intelligence and skill performed by the dogs. Soldiers brought them home with them, and their popularity grew in the states from that time on. Fearing anti-German sentiment against the breed, the British Kennel Club renamed German Shepherds “Alsatian Wolf Dog” or Alsatian, for the Alsace-Lorraine area where it originated. These two names can be used interchangeably, though Alsatian is much less commonly heard in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the breed’s popularity as a guard dog has given it a reputation as a fierce attack dog breed. While undoubtedly the number one choice for police work in the U.S., it is their ability to reliably take direction that qualifies them for this work, not ingrained viciousness. As with any dog, socialization and consistent training lay the groundwork for puppies to become wonderful pets.

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